“They were thirsty for God”

I imagine that in relation to my last post, those of you who may not have spent a lot of time amongst super-high church folks or the Orthodox may be thinking:

WHOA. The Divine Liturgy of St James takes 3 HOURS?


Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

Others of you may wonder if that includes time for prayer ministry at the front while the band plays on endlessly. It doesn’t. 😉

Indeed, when we say that a traditional liturgy takes three hours, that means that just following the actions listed on the page, and praying the prayers written there, will take three hours, and this without a sermon. St Augustine once preached for two hours, and we have a few lengthy sermons from St John Chrysostom.

On the other hand, we all know that a good modern priest like Father Ted can do Mass in, what, five minutes? The church you go to probably has a church service that lasts between one hour and one hour and a half. And I bet that if your minister preaches two minutes longer than usual, people ‘joke’ with him about preaching ‘so long’.

I imagine some clergy take those jokes in good humour; I’m not a clergyman, but I feel offended for all of them at such jokes. (Self-righteousness is easy to come by. You wanna be humble? Look at me.) What is it that we are all rushing away from the assembly of the faithful and the worship of the Holy God that is so important that we can’t stand to hear a person unfolding the Scriptures to us for a few more minutes? Or that we can’t sing those two last verses of ‘Crown Him with Many Crowns’?

Coffee in the hall? Football? Brunch? Our son’s nap? (I’ll give you the last one.)

When my minister was talking about how long the Divine Liturgy of St James would take if done in full, he said something that stuck with me, ‘They were thirsty for God.’

— I guess before I start exhorting us all to be similarly thirsty, I should throw out my historian’s caveats. Indeed, not all Christians were that into liturgy. Indeed, some people were probably late, others may have left early. Indeed, there were worldly Christians in the late third century (well before Constantine ‘corrupted’ things). Indeed, there has never been a golden age. —

But whatever problems ancient Christians may have had, and whatever virtues we may possess:

They were thirsty for God.

Ante-Nicene Christians faced, at various times and in various places, imprisonment, unemployment, torture, death, confiscation of church property, etc., simply for being Christians, whether at the official hands of government or those of an angry mob. Many succumbed (many still do), many others live in glory with Christ as confessors and martyrs.

They were thirsty for God.

After Constantine, when it was safe, even prudent at times and eventually pretty much required to be a Christian, many Christians would still gather on Sundays for hours to hear their beloved bishops preach. While others went to the chariot races or watched the pagan spectacle next door, some Christians (who knows how many?) would still faithfully attend their churches for prayer, preaching, and sacrament, more than willing to stand for three hours in clouds of incense to worship the God who saved them.

They were thirsty for God.

Others at the same time felt the faith in the city was being too watered down, so off they went to the desert places and wrestled with demons and prayed day and night and memorised the Bible.

They were thirsty for God.

What are we thirsty for in the age of social media, in our hyper-real, technologised age? Netflix? Likes on our blog posts? The perfect selfie? A nicely curated library of spiritual books (who knows [cares] if we’ve read even one)? The perfect cup of coffee? A nice, cold beer?

Are we thirsty for God?


2 thoughts on ““They were thirsty for God”

  1. At one time the Book of Common Prayer Anglican liturgy of Mattins, Litany and the Holy Communion might have taken three hours with choral settings of the Te Deum and Jubilate, (The Utrecht Te Deum and Utrecht Jubilate by Handel each took 30 minutes to perform. Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum took 50 minutes.) ALL the Psalms chanted, metrical psalms before, during and after each of the individual services, and lengthy sermons. Likewise Johann Sebastian Bach’s morning Lutheran service took three hours which included a 30 minute cantata and an hour long sermon.

    • Thanks for this observation! I wonder how frequently the full cycle of Matins, Litany, Communion took place, especially with Handel’s settings. After 1662, it was common to do Matins, Litany, Antecommunion most Sundays. Still, it would be longer than what we do today. So the era of Reform was also thirsty for God…

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